The new world of interpreting: Are some staying behind?
August 26, 2013 § 12 Comments
Modernization is part of human nature, it’s always been around. From the cavemen who used the first tools, to the invention of writing, to the discovery of new territories, and to the technological advances of the 21st. century, humankind has always strived to be more comfortable, more competitive, and more modern. Sadly, as modernization is in our DNA, so is the desire to resist change. How many wars, social unrests, and atrocities have been committed on the name of “tradition” and to protect the status quo. Fear is a bad advisor; it never stops progress but it slows it down. Historically people have opposed change arguing that it will bring upon us calamity and disaster. This has never happened. No doubt the primitive hunter feared agriculture as its results took longer than it took to hunt a prey. Veteran sailors feared navigation far from shore because they could fall into the void. Artisans feared the industrial revolution because there would be no more jobs. All those fears proved to be unfounded. You see, humans are adaptable by nature. We adapt to the circumstances that surround us and make the most of it; that is how progress happens. That is how we measure it. The interpreters of the League of Nations panicked with the arrival of simultaneous interpretation during the Nuremberg trials and they fought against it when the newly-created United Nations decided to adopt the new technology to have more efficient real time communication during sessions and negotiations. I think we are going through a similar period right now.
Those from my generation remember the old TV sets that broadcasted in black and white for a few hours every day, the transatlantic flights on airplanes that had to stop somewhere to refuel between America and Europe. Oh, and we were witnesses and users of then state-of-the-art technology like record players, 8-track players, cassette players, walkmans, and CDs. We watched movies at the theater, on Betamax and VHS cassettes, and we went to Blockbuster making sure we had rewinded the tape after watching it. What about computers, calculators, contact lenses, microwave ovens, and many other things. They all came and went. They all fulfilled their purpose and we are now better off without them.
The digital era has brought tremendous changes to the way interpreters do business and work nowadays. We now fill up our work agendas, get paid, and prepare for a job at a speed and with efficiency never imagined. I am enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, some colleagues are not.
Not long ago I was interpreting for a conference that required many languages so there were many booths. The equipment was state-of-the-art. We had consoles that rewind the presenter’s speech, and we had a TV monitor in the booth that received images from cameras in the room that we could operate with a joy stick to see the faces of those asking questions even though they were facing towards the stage and all we could see from the booth was their backs. Before the start of the first session of the first day of the conference, I heard the two colleagues from a different booth asking the tech person to “please remove that thing from the booth.” They argued that “it (took) too much room and (they) really didn’t need all those videogames to do a good job.” I have known these colleagues for a long time and their work is excellent. They are some of the best in their language pair. Unfortunately, after overhearing the comments above, and after going by their booth and seeing that they did not have any computers or tablets, I couldn’t help to compare them to other colleagues with the same language combination that I had recently worked with and were taking advantage of all the technology. I felt frustrated by their decision to get rid of the technology, but I also felt sad because I knew then that unless they change, pretty soon they will not be working. Others with similar skills and better technology will take their place.
For some time I have noticed how the gap is widening between those of us who are embracing technology and those wonderful interpreters who resist and fight the change. I still run into colleagues who give you dirty looks when you arrive to the booth and plug in your I-pad. Just this year I have worked with people who are bringing paper dictionaries to work. Not long ago an interpreter complained to me that the agency was trying to send us all materials to a dropbox instead of emailing them (never mind we were talking of huge files) Another one remarked that it was “distracting” to see me “playing” with the I-pad in the booth and taking notes on the pad instead of “using paper and pencil.” I tried to explain that I was online researching a term to help her with her rendition but she didn’t give me a chance to explain.
Unfortunately these are not isolated cases, and many of these colleagues are really good. They don’t understand that comments like: “please call me. I hate to do this by email” hurt them with the client. They do not see that the person from the agency is 20 years old and expects you to use Viber, WhatsApp, and Wikipedia. I am concerned because we may be on the verge of losing very good professionals because of their stubbornness. And it is not just the interpreters. It is some of our professional organizations as well. I work all over, so I am a member of professional organizations all-over the world. Some of them have embraced technology quite well, but others are resisting the change. We still have professional organizations, and some agencies for that matter, which refuse to take electronic signatures, that want to see a FAXED copy of your ID, or that refuse scanned documents. Organizations that “need” to approve your comments in a professional chat-room; “need” a signature to change your address on the directory, or demand copies of your certificates and diplomas. We have organizations led by the same people who resist change that are becoming irrelevant before our eyes and don’t see it.
My friends, I worry that good capable people may become obsolete because of their resistance to modernization. I can just imagine how good they would be if they “dared” to use technology. The great Charles F. Kittering once said: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” He was right. I would love to hear your thoughts on this very delicate but essential issue.